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Broken Embraces: movie review

Almodóvar and Cruz turn to noir in ‘Broken Embraces,’ a film within a film that draws on movie greats.

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Spanish actors Penelope Cruz and Lluis Homar are shown on the set of director Pedro Almodovar's film " Broken Embraces" in this undated publicity photo released to Reuters November 18, 2009.

REUTERS/Emilio Pereda & Paola Ardizzoni/El Deseo/Sony Pictures Classics/Handout

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No contemporary movie director has worked the history of film into his own films as lavishly as Pedro Almodóvar. He presents you with a pageant of allusions, riffs, and homages, and no more so than in his latest, “Broken Embraces.”

He also, increasingly, references his own movies. In “Broken Embraces,” which stars Penélope Cruz as an actress who drives both her smitten director and her producer to dangerous distraction, he carries the gambit much further than ever before. It’s a movie about a movie director, and it even features a film within a film – actually, it’s a film within a film within a film – that is clearly meant to invoke his most popular success, “Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown.”

I still consider that giddy, knockabout 1988 movie his best, but in the intervening years he has become far more serioso, and this is true of his filmic models as well. Whereas “Women” drew on Hollywood slapstick classics and satirized (and reveled in) sob sister melodramas of the Joan Crawford variety, he is now much more likely to plunge headfirst into film noir. As always, Almodóvar’s game plan is twofold: He wants us to recognize the same movies he does, but he also wants to subvert them – make them his own. He wants to get at the dramatic heart of melodrama.

What Almodóvar is doing is not so very different from what French New Wave directors like Jean-Luc Godard and François Truffaut attempted in their early films. Movies like “Breathless” and “Shoot the Piano Player” were fantasias based on beloved hard-boiled Hollywood models. These directors pulled poetry out of pulp, and yet they somehow still managed to preserve pulp’s punch.

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